Ralph Ardolina, 32, a payroll manager from Floral Park, N.Y., has season tickets behind home plate at Citi Field. But with the Home Run Derby being held at the stadium Monday night — and eight of baseball’s best sluggers gunning for beyond the outfield fences — he decided to grab a seat in deep right.
Ardolina said it had been more than 20 years and 600 games since he had taken a mitt to a game. But now he had a chance to be part of the action by being more than 450 feet away from it.
“This was my only shot at going to the Home Run Derby, so I might as well take advantage,” he said from his seat in the next-to-last row on the Pepsi Porch, an elevated area from which batters look so tiny that spectators tend to watch them on large televisions.
And take advantage he did, as Prince Fielder hit a towering shot — his second home run of the night — right at Ardolina, who caught it like a pro. Fielder finished with five homers in the first round and did not advance. Neither did the Mets’ David Wright (five home runs) nor the Yankees’ Robinson Cano (four), the two hometown sluggers. Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes stole the show, slugging 17 homers in the opening round. Cespedes, edged Bryce Harper, 9-8, in a final round in which Matthew Criscuolo, 32, a physical therapist from Sunnyside, Queens, caught one of Harper’s final home run balls in right field, only for his celebration to be dampened by Devin Trone, 53, a fire chief from Los Angeles, who caught the Derby-tying shot by Cespedes to left.
Trone, who boasts more than 850 ballpark catches, said he caught three home runs in batting practice Monday night.
“I’ll be out here with my glove tomorrow night,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
It was clear that, as the Derby grows ever more popular, so too have the fans honed their ability to capitalize on all those fresh baseballs being sprayed into the outfield seats by the dozens.
“You’re less of a spectator and more of a participant” than at a regular game, said Rob Sessions, 21, a college student who traveled with his friend Brian Brown, 21, from North Plano, Tex.
Every group of fans sitting beyond the infield seemed to have a glove, or several, among them. Many fans seemed to have put a bit of thought behind where they could sit — or in many cases, stand — to best catch a ball.
“We usually sit behind home plate, but I wanted to get him in the best position I could,” said Chris Clark, 43, a real estate agent from Breezy Point, Queens, who took his mitt-carrying son Ryan, 10, and sat just beyond the center-field fence.
Patrick Layer, 23, of Huntington, N.Y., decided not to sit in his usual seats behind home plate, instead taking a place along the railing of the Shea Bridge overlooking right-center field — about 450 feet from the plate. He said he took his mitt, a first for him, because, “All the big boppers are here tonight, not just a couple on one team.”
Nearby, Rick Rossi, 60, of Howell, N.J., had also brought his old glove, because catching a home run ball was “on my bucket list” of things he always wanted to accomplish.
“The last time I brought a mitt to a game, I was 15,” he said excitedly.
Adam Winters, 29, an accountant from Massapequa, N.Y., packed his 20-year-old glove and grabbed a front-row seat in Pepsi Porch. He snagged a home run ball hit by Robinson Cano in batting practice, beating out his friend Ethan Bouskila.
“Years from now, I’ll tell people I let him catch it,” Bouskila said.
Other than homers, balls were also tossed into the stands from obliging players shagging flies during batting practice.
Eric Komorek, 21, a college student from Erie, Pa., who is a Cleveland Indians fan, yelled — “Jason, I love you!” — at his favorite player, Jason Kipnis, the Indians second baseman patrolling right field. Kipnis reciprocated by tossing Komorek a ball.
“It’s a one-in-a-million shot to catch a home run,” Komorek said. “If nothing else comes my way tonight, I’ll still be happy.”
Among the casual ball-catchers were the ball hawks, the more obsessed fans whose entire ballpark experience seems to revolve around snagging a ball. Many arrived at Citi Field before noon to be first in line to stake out one of the coveted spots along various railings. Pre-Derby conversations included the trading of detailed information about players, stadium logistics, and infiltration strategies that involved skirting security guards and befriending ushers.
Sessions and Brown said they spent weeks researching the best spot at Citi Field. They decided upon the Shea Bridge and went with a strategy that had the 6-foot-4 Brown catch the balls while the shorter Sessions boxed out would be intercepting fans. Last year, the strategy helped them catch four balls at the Derby in Kansas City, Mo., they said.
“It’s every man for himself, with some respect,” Sessions said. “We wait long enough for our spot, so if a ball comes, we’re entitled to fight for it.”
The renowned ball hawk Zack Hample, 35, varied his position throughout the night, depending upon the batters. He spent batting practice in a front-row seat, just past the center-field fence, and collected six balls, in part because of his coaxing of players who were shagging flies. It helped that he had in his backpack a baseball cap for every team with players on the field. He would put on the appropriate hat when asking a player for a ball.
It was easier doing that than trying to position himself in just the right spot to catch a home run ball